Quick Compare| New York's Armory Show and Outsider Art Fair

Both art events take place within weeks of each other
annually in New York City
Over this past weekend, artists, critics, galleries, collectors, and curators from around the world descended on New York to take part in America’s preeminent art fair, The Armory Show. Advertised as the leading fair devoted to the most important art of the 20th and 21st century, the event has become an annual fixture predicting many of the trends and interests of the art market and its network of dealers. Split into two main exhibitions (the Armory Show Modern and the Armory Show Contemporary) and a series of satellite shows around other parts of the city, the fair is open to the public and allows individuals a chance to peruse and purchase artworks ranging in value from hundreds to millions of dollars. In this sense, there is often a palpable love/hate relationship between contemporary artists and the fair since the primary interest of many attendees relates to the commercial aspects of the international institution. Paddy Johnson, art writer and founder of the popular Art Fag City blog, produced a wonderful summary of the event that captures the spirit of this tension-- she includes a Trendwatch report that includes an Armory Show Bingo Card featuring the common motifs of this year’s fair (apparently lots of neon, cubes, and the colour yellow).

The original poster for the first Armory Show in 1913.
A virtual tour of the first show can be found here
The spectacle and many conversations created around an art fair is of course part of the draw. The original Armory Show of 1913, from which today’s fair takes inspiration, was a pivotal moment in the history of American art when the public was first introduced to the art of modernism on a grand scale. With the many radical works exhibited, famously including Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), the goal was to challenge audiences accustomed to more figurative or realist approaches to painting and allow a new generation of artists articulate a modern vision in keeping with new European art movements such as Cubism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. Then, like today, the question of what constitutes “acceptable” and “good” art was largely decided within the complex network of artists, critics, curators, dealers, and galleries that held stakes in the outcome of how particular art was perceived. And then, like today, the issue of artistic transgression and pushing art beyond acceptable limits was also up for debate.

Still, what separates the original spirit of the Armory Show from its contemporary counter-part is its mainstream appeal. As a result, other kinds of art fairs have emerged in recent years to challenge the huge influence and residual impact of the Armory Show on the world of contemporary art.  Of these, the Outsider Art Fair (now in its 19th year) takes place in New York several weeks ahead of the Armory Show, creating a welcome contrast and new source of inspiration for many contemporary artists. Outsider art was a term originally coined to categorize a range of self-taught and “naïve” artists operating outside the institutionalized world of art schools and gallery systems. Today, the term has also come to connote a range of art practices that do not fit comfortably within the contemporary art parameters determined by an art fair like the Armory. Indeed, comparing the events (see the videos below) it is interesting to note the different kind of vitality and community engendered with the exhibition. As one New York Times art critic noted while covering the Outsider Art Fair, “For those of us caught up in the art world, it offers a corrective, or at least a temporary window into another world.”

You can compare these two video overviews of the recent 2011 Armory Show (Vernissage TV) and Outsider Art Fair (James Kalm Report):